Mother of Witches Part Four
On a certain festive day in the lands of Zeif, the sultan announced the happy news that his favored son Hussin had returned from far-off Bramblewood with a bellbon Ketite maiden of unmatched beauty. “Surely this is the one of whom the prophecy spoke,” the sultan said when he cast eyes upon her. “My daughter,” he fawned over her, “Your power and fame will eclipse all others. Istus has decreed it, and the rashaw has forseen it.”
The sultan happily announced to his people, “My son Hussin shall be wed beneath a flowered canopy on the first night of Brewfest.” Invitations went out to all the sultan’s other sons, to all the powerful houses of Zeir-I-Zeif, and to the chieftains, the pashas, and the beygrafs from foreign lands.
Many tongues wagged over the matter, “Who is this woman? Is she not an infidel? From what noble house has she come?” But others said, “This is the hand of Istus.”
Until the night of her wedding, the Ketite maid took her place in the chambers of the third palace with the other maidens outside the harem of Peh’reen. They put her under the charge and care of the sultan’s chief eunuchs who attended to her daily. The servant girls of the palace also pampered her with oil of myrrh, with spices, with paints and cosmetics, braiding of hair, and sweet perfumes. All was gladness and song, and all the palace seemed astir with anticipation over the coming day of joy. They dressed the fair-skinned maid in fine silks and scarves. They adorned her with gleaming ornaments of golden jewelry set with precious gems. They arranged her black hair to dangle in curling feats. As the week of Brewfest drew near, dancers went before her with castanets. Minstrels played for her entertainment, and singers sang of her charms, “A bellbon beautiful bride! A bellbon beautiful maid!”
On the morning of the first day of Brewfest, the maid went in to prepare a curtained chamber in the Palace of Pehreen. She adorned the blonke with the petals of flowers and scented the embroidered silks of the bedspreads. Then she hung a great brass mirror upon the wall into which she gazed for most of the morning, admiring her own winsome reflection. But as she pined over herself, there came an omen most inauspicious. From the east blew an unseasonable wind driving before it a dark cloud of angry thunders. The face of the morning sun dimpsed behind the rolling clouds. Strokes of lightning laced the sky, and dark shadows fell over the city. Before the maid could close and bar the window shutters, a gust of wind entered the curtained chamber, tossing the swaths of cloth about and scattering the petals from the canopied bed. The wind so stirred the atmosphere of the room that, for a short spell, the flower petals swirled about in a furious vortex, and all the curtains twisted about the bed stands. Then just as abruptly as the storm had come, all fell calm.
“Well that was some devilshine. Who has entered here?” the maid demanded as she straightened her gown and untangled her scarves. “I will know your name! Find your tongue or I will force it.”
“Call my name Natasha,” a voice not unlike her own spoke from inside the brass mirror that hung upon the wall. The real Natasha turned to the mirror on time to see her own reflection step out from its surface. “You!” the maid exclaimed. “How have you come here? Did I not leave you in the cow pasture?”
“Yes sister,” the look-alike said. “And that’s where I intend to leave you, right after I have claimed my rightful prize.”
“You have come too late,” Natasha snapped as she reached for a spell with which to bind the intruder, but her effort proved to be the tardier. At that same moment, a child’s small doll spoke from on top of the disheveled donge, “Now you will see how useful I can be.” Elena’s little doll hopped to the floor, lifted Natasha off her feet, and tossed her into the brass mirror.
The sultan’s son Hussin suspected nothing of these matters, nor did he give the morning’s unusual storm a second thought. He looked forward to the wedding after which he was sure to be promoted to the title Sheik al-Kafez, the heir apparent. Moreover, he eagerly desired to take the Ketite maiden to wife.
After reciting his prayers and performing the sacred rites, the handsome young prince dispensed charity, visited the royal baths, anointed himself with oil, and perfumed his beard. When the hour arrived, he clothed himself in white linen according to the custom, but over his shoulders he wore the scintillating cape of light he had received as a lovedrury from his betrothed. So bedecked in fine linen, magical lights, and noble splendor he went forth to the flowered canopy, accompanied by an entourage of drummers, flute girls, and dancers.
He stepped beneath the canopy as the sun retired down the Western Royal Road. The soft gloaming light of evening made the scintillations of his shimmering raiment seem all the brighter and more wondrous. Thus he overawed the assembly of wedding guests. As he stepped beneath the canopy, the powerful men of Zeir-I-Zeif, the chieftans, the pashas, and the beygrafs from foreign lands all blasphemed, “Is this a mere man or is he a god?”
No less was their amazement when the prince lifted the silken veils from the face of his exquisitely formed bride. They beheld the Ketite maid’s fair-skin, her dark hair, and her keen features. Such beauty and exotic graces incited the jealousy of the Bakluni women and the desire of their sighing husbands.
When all the solemnities concluded, and the guests retired to the wedding feast, dancers and singers went before Hussin and his bride and accompanied them into the Palace of Peh’reen. The bridegroom brought his bride into the curtained chamber, eager to bed her. Her farnet closed the great doors and took up a post outside to guard their chamber from any intrusion through the night.
“Put out the light and come quick to the bed,” his wife said seductively from beneath the embroidered silks. He quickly snuffed out the lamps and began to undress, but the light from the resplendence of his scintillating cape still filled the room with flashes and swirls of color. By means of that illumination, it so happened that his glance fell upon the brass mirror while he hung the cape upon a hook beside it. By the wurp of his eye he caught sight of another woman looking out at him as if she were a reflection standing just behind his own reflection in the mirror.
“Al’hatha protect us! It is Fair Elena!” he cried out in alarm. “Behold your sister’s ghost looks on us from inside the mirror!”
“Pay that fleak no mind!” his bride said sharply from beneath the embroidered silks, “She has no suit here.”
The woman in the mirror objected, “I am no ghost, for I live and breathe. But my devious sister is a treacherous witch. That drossel put the feign of death upon me that she might ride away with you for her husband and leave me to rot in the cow pasture. Was she not jealous of me? With my own hands I created this cape of light, a deed for which she has no skill.” With those words, the fair-headed reflection in the mirror reached out from the polished surface and took hold of the cape of scintillating light which the prince had hung upon an adjacent hook. She began thus to draw the cape to herself, pulling it into the mirror.
“Not so!” shrieked the dark-haired maid. Up she leapt from beneath the embroidered silks and seized the tail end of the cape before it slipped away into the reflection of the room. “I am the true Elena,” the dark-haired maid sobbed. “I am the one who wove the light of setting sun, the shining of bright stars, the radiance of Luna, the glow of Celene, and stitched them into this princely gift for a lovedrury.” The dark-haired maid gave a mighty pull upon the hem, but the fair-headed girl inside the mirror did not let release her grasp upon the collar. Instead, she let her sister’s tugging pull her free from inside the brass mirror, and so she toppled out of the mirror, tumbling into the chamber, kew-kaw upon the other. The girls collapsed into a brangle on the floor, each still grasping tight to the garment of light that lit up the room.
“But how?” the prince objected as the girls tussled about at his feet. “Was not Elena the sister fair of head while Natasha was the sister dark of hair?”
“Forgive me my prince,” the dark-haired girl apologized as she pulled herself out from beneath the other maid and stood to her feet, still tugging at the cape. “I used a spell to disguise myself as my sister lest you wed yourself unhappily when all along it was I that you desired.”
“She spins lies my prince. See with your own eyes. Am I not fair-headed Elena?” the other maid maintained as she jerked at the fabric of the garment. “I created this marvel for you with my own hands.”
The sisters pulled at the pulsating cape, back and forth, until it began to tear asunder. The prince cried out in alarm, “Stay fair maids! Do not tear the garment! You have no need to quarrel so over me. Why ruin a thing of unmatched beauty? Am I insufficient to the task? Let me take you both to wife, and you shall each have your fair share.”
On hearing these words, the sisters ceased their tugging on the fabrics and turned to gaze upon the fine-looking prince who stood before them. The scintillating colors of light from the cape played across his chest and illuminated his handsome young face. Yes, he appeared winsome indeed.
“What say you sister?” the fair-haired maid asked the other. “Shall we share the man as we have until this day divided all things between us evenly?”
The dark-haired maid shrugged her bare shoulders indifferently and sighed with resignation, “Why should we quarrel?”
The sister seeming fair of hair released her grasp upon the collar of the coat of light and let it fall free from her hands. At that same moment her visage shifted and became as it were the mirror reflection of the other. Then the sister seeming dark of hair took up the torn garment and covered herself in it. At that moment her visage also shifted and became as the other had appeared a moment before.
“Then it is settled!” the prince said with satisfaction. “After all, if I am to be a sultan, I shall need a whole harem of wives.” He clapped his hands together as if to conclude a haggle over horses in the market.
“Now show yourself useful,” Elena said to her little doll which had crept up behind the prince unobserved. “Divide this man evenly between us.”
“Now you will see how useful I can be,” the little doll said.
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